27 June 2016

I do not understand image but I am glad others do

I have never really understood ‘visuals’.  I realized this most acutely when I started working as a part time copywriter at Phoenix Ogilvy.  I could put word to image but could never imagine appropriate visual for text. 

Years ago, when I was working in the Sunday Island, Nihal Fernando, Lanka-lover who saw, worked, loved, respected and was through and of lens, suggested in his self-effacing and charming way that we work together on a project.   

Nihal Fernando is not just one of the greatest photographers and staunchest patriots we have, but someone who has walked every inch of this country, knows it like the back of his hand and for these and other reasons is eminently qualified to comment and prescribe. 

He gave me a copy of D.S. Senanayake’s ‘Agriculture and Patriotism’ along with a bunch of black and white photographs from Studio Times.  He flagged various passages and marked appropriate photographs.  He wanted me to carry one photograph with one paragraph every week.  The purpose was to educate. After some time, I thought I should add my two-cents worth.  So there would be Nihal’s photograph, D.S. Senanayake’s thought on a relevant subject, playing off each other and at the bottom, my comment.  Six months later, we ran out of text.  Nihal could never run out of images.  So thereafter it was just Nihal and I; his photographs, my comments.  If I wrote something and was asked to suggest a relevant photograph to illustrate what I had written, I would have got tongue-tied or worse, choose something that not only would not complement but might even detract from message. I don’t understand ‘visual’.

This I learnt from Shantha K. Herrath, clearly the most under-utilized talent at Upali Newspapers at the time.  Some say this ‘under-utilization’ and at times non-utilization is all Shantha’s fault, i.e. his eccentricities and stubborn, uncompromising manner, but I am not so sure.   

There is after all a thing called the ‘Shantha K Herrath Lakuna (mark)’ in contemporary Sri Lankan art and newspaper illustration and that speaks of an exceptional talent.

There was a time when Shantha helped with the layout at the Island.  At the time I had persuaded the editor, Manik De Silva, to reserve an entire page for a photo essay.  The photographers, bored out of their skin with taking pictures of politicians at press conferences, were thrilled because they got an opportunity to have fun.  So every week we put together a photo-story on various subjects.  Shantha handled the layout.  He cropped without mercy in favour of the overall visual effect.   The end product pleased the eye.  He would leave some space for a headline and a caption that tied together the images and ‘decorated’ the photo-story.  We adjusted without encroaching too much into each other’s territory. 

I remember telling Shantha that I needed an illustration for an article I had written about the Ceasefire Agreement.  My argument was that the CFA favoured the LTTE and the Eelam Project and inter alia was a deliberate and pernicious attempt by the Norwegians to attack Buddhism and Buddhists.  I had an idea.  I told Shantha that I want a play on the National Flag, with the bo leaves replaced by crosses, the lion by a tiger etc.  He listened.  Then he said ‘umbata kiyanna oney de kiyapang’ (tell me what you are trying to get across).  I told him.  He said ‘ethi’ (enough).  His illustration was so powerful that I might as well have not written my piece.  He does this all the time, the most recent in my memory being in his illustrations for poetry written by Buddhadasa Galappaththi. 

There was no ‘National Flag’.  There was a lion sprawled awakwardly and atop the lion, a tiger, laid-back, sunglasses, soaking up life.  Towering over the two there was a man in a priest’s cassock, cross in hand.  The article was for the daily Island. Gamini Weerakoon, editor, crossed the cross off remarking (according to Shantha) that we don’t need a ‘religious war’ as well.  Even today I believe that there’s a lot of sweeping under the carpet happening, but the editor I think was correct because the focus of the article was about Eelamism. 

Shantha used that illustration as the start of one of the most effective cartoon series I’ve seen. He called it ‘The Fourth Dimension’ (Sunday Island) and called the Sinhala version in the Sunday Divaina ‘Sathes’ (Seven Eyes).  Later, when I started working at Phoenix and came to know art directors and illustrators I was even more humbled by my ignorance and utter inadequacy in comprehending colour, line and space.  ‘Visual-people’ make my blindness painfully apparent.

I am thinking in particular about someone called Lesly (I have never met this person), who illustrates my articles for the Daily News.  I feel this person has got under my skin, borrowed my eyes and seen what I have seen in exactly the same way.  It is uncanny.  When he draws a character I’ve referred to and one whose physical dimensions I have not described, Lesly might well have been looking at a photograph of the person, it’s so ‘spot-on’. 

There’s always been someone who knows the visual so well that my incompetencies with word could be brushed away with illustration. This, then, is a salute to Shantha K Herrath, Wasantha Siriwardena (The Nation), Lalith Senanayake (now at Rivira but illustrated my weekly submissions of Martin Wickramasinghe’s ‘Upan Da Sita’ – From the Beginning’ – which I translated into English over a period of a year and a half when he was at Upali Newspapers and I at the Sunday Island), Lesly, the layout boys at The Island and The Nation and others I have never met. Thank you, all.

This article was first published in the Daily News (June 26, 2010)
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com. Twitter: malindasene
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